Carrying out 100,000 COVID-19 tests per day in England by the end of April would be a “herculean task”, the government has been warned.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has unveiled a five-pillar coronavirus action plan to achieve a “significant” increase in testing for the disease.
It comes as new figures from NHS England showed the first death of someone diagnosed with the virus actually happened in February – one week before previously thought.
The statistics also revealed more insight into the age profile of the patients with 52% of those who have died were aged over 80.
Meanwhile, another 569 people have died in the UK after contracting coronavirus – bringing the total number of deaths to 2,921.
Testing is seen as vital in tracking the virus and giving the UK hope of ending the current lockdown, but opposition parties and some experts expressed scepticism and called for more detail.
Keith Plumb, a chemical engineer on the board of trustees at the Institution of Chemical Engineers, told Sky News: “Setting up what appears to be effectively a new industry within the UK in such a short amount of time doesn’t really seem to be that practical.
“I’m not saying we can’t do it, but it does seem to be quite difficult.
“I wouldn’t say it was a completely empty promise but the task is very great – the proverbial ‘herculean task’.
“As the Secretary of State said, we don’t really have a diagnostics industry in this country… and that in itself is not going to be straightforward.”
The “five-pillar” plan involves:
- Swab testing at Public Health England and NHS laboratories
- Using commercial partners, including universities and private businesses, to establish more swab testing
- Introducing antibody blood tests to determine whether people have had COVID-19
- Surveillance to determine the rate of infection and how it is spreading across the country
- Building an “at-scale” diagnostics industry to reach 100,000 tests by the end of April
Mr Hancock said the 100,000 figure included both the general public and NHS staff.
And it would be a combination of antigen tests (which shows whether somebody currently has the virus) and antibody tests (which shows if someone has had COVID-19).
Mr Hancock also said the government remained committed to eventually carrying out 250,000 tests a day, something Prime Minister Boris Johnson has spoken of achieving in the past.
The government is working with nine potential providers who are working to produce an antibody test, while it is also looking at whether people could be given immunity certificates to prove they are able to resume their normal activities.
Mr Hancock also vowed that health service staff will be able to get tested for coronavirus “absolutely before the end of the month”.
The ambitious pledge follows criticism of government efforts to ramp up testing and disquiet that the UK is lagging behind other countries.
Mr Hancock addressed this criticism during the news conference blaming the UK’s lack of a large diagnostics industry.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the commitment from the government was “welcome”, but added: “NHS staff will recall that only a few weeks ago Boris Johnson was promising 250,000 [tests] a day.”
Downing Street said earlier that it had finally reached its target of 10,000 daily tests on Tuesday, with 10,412 carried out on that day in NHS and Public Health England laboratories.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said 2,800 members of NHS staff have been tested at drive-through facilities, although “significant numbers” had also been tested at NHS and PHE labs.
An increase in testing of NHS staff would potentially enable thousands of them who are self-isolating, because they or their family members have shown symptoms, to return to work once they know they are clear of the disease.
Mr Hancock said the latest figures showed that 5.7% of doctors were currently absent because of COVID-19.
Matt Hancock will be speaking to Sky News at around 7am this morning about his five-pillar action plan
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